In this comprehensive guide to the best sleep position for neck pain, shoulder pain, and other upper-body pain, we’ll outline everything you need to know to get a solid night of quality sleep that not only remains free from painful sleep disturbances but also helps your body to heal and recover once and for all.
Ample evidence shows a close relationship between sleep and pain. Sleeping in the wrong position causes pain, which keeps us up at night, which, in turn, prevents us from getting the kind of restorative, quality sleep we need to heal that pain in the first place.
It’s a vicious circle that prolongs our discomfort and has the potential to keep waking us up multiple times in the night. It gets worse when you consider that lack of sleep and chronic pain is a harmful combination that can cause any number of other health problems, including depression, obesity, and even heart attacks and strokes.
That’s the bad news.
The good news is that there are lots we can do to finally break this vicious cycle so that you can get the kind of perfectly peaceful night’s sleep you truly deserve.
With that in mind, we’re about to explain why your neck and shoulder pain is worse when you sleep and, more importantly, what you can do about it.
Why is Neck and Shoulder Pain Worse at Night?
More often than not, shoulder and neck pain flare-up much worse at night due to our sleeping position.
Shoulder injury specialist Dr. Rami Elshaar, an Orthopedic Surgeon at Rochester Regional Health, says that our initial shoulder pain may be first triggered by any number of factors besides sleep (including overuse during the day). And, sleeping in an unhelpful condition can cause our rotator cuff to stretch and pull, resulting in pre-existing strains in that area to become more painful.
Dr. Elsharr also explains that intensified shoulder pain at night could be a result of sub acromial bursitis, a condition that causes inflammation of the Bursa, a small cushion that minimizes friction between tissues in the body.
If you’re living with this condition and you sleep on your side at night, this position can compress the bursa, causing intensified pain. Meanwhile, Dr. Christopher Williams at Interventional Orthopedics of Atlanta says that while neck pain can also be triggered by a whole host of day-time activities (prolonged computer use, heavy lifting, etc.), it may get worse at night due to adopting an improper sleep position that causes our neck to strain.
Add to that the fact that sleep deprivation itself can be a root cause of chronic pain, and it’s important that we get this taken care of as soon as possible.
The Best Sleep Position for Neck Pain
The best way to sleep for neck pain is on your back with your body properly supported by pillows. Sleeping on your side in a comfortable position is also recommended.
Sleeping on Your Back for Neck Pain
Sleeping on your back helps to promote proper spinal alignment, which can reduce pressure throughout your body, resulting in less pain in the neck.
This can also be one of the best positions to sleep in for lower back pain and other issues.
If you’re going to adopt this position, do so with a good quality cervical pillow to support your neck with a flatter, thinner pillow to cushion your head.
Sleeping on Your Side for Neck Pain
Sleeping on your side is widely regarded as one of the most effective ways to sleep for many different conditions, including a sore neck.
Ideally, if you’re sleeping in this position, you want to keep your whole body level and avoid elevating your head and neck with pillows.
To achieve this, use a taller, supportive pillow. This helps to keep your hips, shoulders, and ears all in a fairly straight line which ultimately reduces that bothersome neck pain so that you can finally sleep.
If you find that lying this way means that there are small gaps between your mattress and your body, use suitably-sized pillows to fill those gaps to prevent further strain on your neck and back muscles.
The Best Sleep Position for Shoulder Pain
At any one time, some 18 – 26% of adults suffer from shoulder pain, a condition that impacts the quality of sleep and the overall quality of life.
If this is the situation you’re facing, the best way to sleep is once again either on your back or on your side.
The aim here is to prevent your shoulder from moving down to touch the bed. Often when this happens, we can strain the rotator cuff and place added pressure on an already weakened joint.
Sleeping on Your Back for Shoulder Pain
If you sleep on your back, you can stop (or at least minimize) all that strain and pressure by placing a small pillow between your shoulder blades.
You’ll also find it helpful to have an extra pillow or a folded towel to rest your arm on.
This shouldn’t be too high up. Ideally, you want your arm and shoulder in alignment with the rest of your body rather than sagging low towards the bed or elevated upwards.
Sleeping on Your Side for Shoulder Pain
If you prefer to sleep on your side, it makes sense to sleep on the side of your body unaffected by shoulder pain.
If both shoulders hurt, or if that side just doesn’t help you to relax, grab those all-important pillows and use them to help keep your arm at the same level as the rest of your body.
How to Get a Better Night’s Sleep with Neck and Shoulder Pain: Dos and Don’ts
Here are some critical dos and don’t to get a better night’s sleep with neck and shoulder pain. Scroll down to learn below.
Don’t: Sleep on Your Stomach
Your back or side may be the best sleep position for neck pain and shoulder soreness, but let’s face it:
For some people, this just isn’t going to work.
There are many reasons for this, ranging from pain or injuries in other parts of the body that make back and side sleeping impossible to the simple fact that some of us just struggle to relax comfortably in those positions.
If that sounds like you, it’s still a very good idea to avoid sleeping on your stomach.
When you sleep in this position, your back will likely arch, which pushes your spine out of natural alignment.
This also places more pressure on the middle of your body, which can put added pressure on the spine and result in even more problems, such as trying to sleep with lower back pain.
What’s more, stomach sleeping often forces us to turn our necks to one side, which, let’s face it, can get pretty uncomfortable.
If you absolutely have to sleep on your stomach because you find it helps with sleep apnea or snoring, you’ll find it wise to either use a thin, flat pillow to rest your head and neck or else avoid using a pillow at all.
The idea here is that you want to keep your body in a straight line without arching or elevating your neck. You can help to further reduce spinal pressure by placing a pillow beneath your pelvis to maintain a more neutral sleeping position.
Do: Sleep in a Recliner Instead
Side and back sleeping is out of the question for you, and we’ve told you to avoid sleeping on your stomach if you can possibly help it, so what’s the alternative?
If all else fails, either sleep sitting up in a reclining chair or else prop yourself up in bed with pillows to create a natural reclining position for your body.
As long as all of your weight isn’t bearing down on your lower back, you’ll find that this helps support your spine, resulting in less painful pressure throughout the night.
Don’t: Consume Alcohol or Caffeine Before Bed
If you read our guide to the top things to stop doing before bed, you’ll likely recall that steering clear of booze and coffee in the hours leading up to sleep can make a world of difference. Alcohol and caffeine may not directly impact your pain, but they will certainly reduce your sleep quality.
As we discussed earlier, getting enough quality sleep is imperative for our bodies to effectively heal, repair, and recover from pain, injuries, and other conditions.
So, as tempting as a glass of wine or two before bed can be, all it’s really doing is affecting your ability to sleep well and thus prolonging your own pain.
Do: Find New Ways to Properly Relax Before Bed
As relaxing as that evening drink may well be, the negative impact on your sleep when dealing with pain issues simply isn’t worth it.
Instead then, perhaps try learning how to meditate before bed, taking a relaxing bath, drinking a soothing herbal tea, or adopting any number of healthier ways to make you feel as relaxed as possible before bed.
While being in a relaxed state can certainly help to reduce your pain awareness, doing this is more about helping you to get lots of uninterrupted sleep so that your body can do its thing in getting you back to optimum health.
Don’t: Use a Pillow That’s Too High
High pillows force your neck to arch, which is a common reason you may wake up in the morning with neck pain.
Likewise, this can force you to sleep in a way that doesn’t keep your shoulders, ears, and hips in a straight line, aggravating shoulder pain.
Do: Pick a Memory Foam Pillow
Replacing your traditional sleep support with one of the best memory foam pillows on the market may be the game-changer you’ve been looking for to reduce neck and shoulder pain. Pillows like the Snuggle Pedic Original Memory Foam Pillow contour to the shape of your head and neck to encourage better spinal alignment.
Frequently Asked Questions About Sleeping With Neck and Shoulder Pain
Is it better for your neck to sleep without a pillow?
There is some limited evidence out there that suggests that sleeping without a pillow may help reduce neck pain for people who sleep on their stomachs as it helps to promote proper spinal alignment.
If you sleep on your back, you may also find that if your mattress already allows you to lie with your body in a straight line that adding a pillow actually makes things worse, not better.
Can sleeping on your side cause shoulder pain?
Although side sleeping is generally considered one of the best ways to sleep for multiple health benefits, sleeping this way with body weight bearing down on your shoulder can cause pain in that area, which is why it’s better to elevate your shoulder from the mattress or switch to sleeping on your back.
Why does my neck hurt after sleeping?
Sleeping with your neck arched through the night can lead to pain in that area, which is why it’s a good idea to experiment and find the best neck pain sleeping position for you.
Likewise, all that tossing, turning, and moving around we tend to do when we sleep can further cause or exacerbate existing pain.
Adopting the Best Sleep Positions for Neck and Shoulder Pain: A Final Word of Advice
If you’ve read this far, you’ve hopefully learned almost all you need to know to get a good night’s rest with shoulder or neck pain.
You’ve learned that the best sleep position for neck pain is to sleep on your back or side and that the same approach should be just as effective if it’s your shoulder that’s giving you grief.
You’ve also learned a few things you can do to enjoy some solid restorative sleep to help heal that pain or prevent it in the first place, such as switching to a memory foam pillow, avoiding alcohol, and incorporating some relaxation time into your pre-bed ritual.
Together, those things should almost certainly help to make a difference, but if they don’t, our final piece of advice is to consult a medical professional.
If you go to bed fully relaxed and sleep in a helpful position, but you’re still hurting, this could be a sign of a more serious injury.
Talk to your doctor, and they’ll be able to help identify the root cause of your problem as well as recommend an effective course of treatment.
You may find that your doctor or a sleep specialist also recommends replacing your mattress.
If they do, here’s our guide to the best mattresses to help you finally get that quality shuteye once and for all.